Skip to main content

Oct 27, 2023

Trust-Based Evaluation: Honoring Community Wisdom and Resilience

I’m not going to stand outside the sweat lodge ceremony and say ‘do you feel better coming out? How much better, on a scale from 1 to 5?’

Marilyn Zimmerman

In traditional philanthropy, the foundation sets the metrics of success and requires the grantees to demonstrate that their work is meeting them. Headwaters Foundation takes a different approach to evaluation. We created a reporting process that centers learning together, positioning grantees and the foundation as true partners in the work to improve health in Western Montana.

Because of our trust-based approach to evaluation, Headwaters Foundation is continuously asked to present at the Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO) Learning conference. Earlier this year in Washington, DC, our team led a session, ‘Why the f#%k are we evaluating anyway?’ which offered conference attendees an opportunity to address uncomfortable questions about what philanthropy should or shouldn’t be doing around evaluation and explore new ideas for more equitable practices moving forward. (There was so much interest in this session that the doors had to be shut early! Clearly, the field of philanthropy is rethinking evaluation.)

Grantee Partner Ashlynn Marasco who led Journey to Wellness in Lake County, Montana and Headwaters Trustee Marilyn Zimmerman, who works with the National Native Children’s Trauma Center at the University of Montana joined Headwaters staff Brenda Solorzano (CEO), Erin Switalski (Program Director) and Stephanie Schilling (Evaluation and Operations Associate) with Joelle Cook of evaluation firm FSG for the session.

Marilyn is an enrolled member of the Assiniboine-Sioux Tribes of the Fort Peck Reservation, and Ashlynn is an enrolled member of the Blackfeet Nation. We were grateful to present alongside these two powerful leaders and hear their unique perspectives on Trust-Based Philanthropy and evaluation in their Native communities. We wanted to capture Marilyn and Ashlynn’s thoughts and share them more broadly; this is a transcribed snippet from the session.


Brenda Solorzano: In philanthropy, we give a $100,000 dollar grant for three years and we expect you to end hunger in your community. Then, we want you to submit pages and pages of reports documenting that so we can share it with our Board. Grantees put together the story that they think the Foundation wants to hear, and then Foundation Staff put together the story that they think the Board wants to hear. Then you come up with this beautiful dashboard that isn’t honest about what’s working or not in communities, and probably looking at metrics that don’t really resonate with communities. Considering that that is often how it works in philanthropy, what are some things that you have experienced with Foundation evaluation that work, and what doesn’t work?

Ashlynn Marasco: With the project that Headwaters has allowed our community to get started on the Flathead Indian Reservation, it was using Trust-Based Philanthropy to give our community a voice – asking us what we thought our problems were and what we thought our solutions were. We have community resiliency and self-actualization built into our societal norms as Indigenous people. That’s what we have used to enhance our programmatic approaches. And I bring that up because we are so used to grantors coming in to help us address BIG problems with just a little funding, and then they leave our community, and we don’t see them again and we are still stuck with the same problems. Headwaters Foundation has allowed us a platform to focus on our local solutions to our local problems, using community resiliency for effective, impactful approaches.

Marilyn Zimmerman: Many of us know the horrible history of exploitation of Indigenous people – helicoptering in, extracting data, helicoptering out. We don’t want to repeat that. When I came to Headwaters as a Trustee, what drew me was this Trust-Based Philanthropy philosophy. One of the things that tribes will always tell you is that we know what our problems are; we also know that the solutions lie within the context of our culture – our spirituality, our ceremonies – this is how we heal as individuals, as families and as communities. But here’s the kicker – you don’t get to participate. You don’t get to know what we do inside that sweat lodge. You don’t get to know what it’s like to fast on a hill for four days and four nights and the kinds of visions that we have, and we’re not going to tell you. I’m not going to stand with a clipboard outside the sweat lodge ceremony and say “do you feel better coming out? How much better, on a scale from 1-5?”

That’s a big piece of evaluation – let us do what we know to do. Let us heal the way we know to heal, using the methods that we have used for millennia. That isn’t necessarily going to fit into goals and objectives, it’s just us being who we are and doing what we know in terms of wellbeing in our community.


The powerful words shared by Marilyn and Ashlynn shed light on the transformative impact of Trust-Based Philanthropy and the importance of cultural context in evaluation. Traditional philanthropic evaluation often falls short by imposing predetermined metrics and overlooking the inherent wisdom and resilience within communities. It is possible to center genuine partnership and trust, empower communities to identify their own challenges and localized solutions, and build evaluation practices that honor the communities we aim to support.

To learn more about…

Thank you to Marilyn and Ashlynn for joining us and for their leadership, and to everyone who attended and participated in our session at GEO!